Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Code of Many Colors

Every so often, the worst thing imaginable happens. A woman's voice says in clear distinct tones: "Code Blue, Davis 7"

My heart skips a beat, waiting to hear the floor. "Please," I say inwardly, "not Davis 7."  That's our floor, the kids' floor.

Code blue is called when a person's heart stops beating. Doctors, nurses, a pharmacist and a respiratory therapist are paged to do their best to revive the patient.

From the point of view of the people involved, it's a team effort. From the point of view of an observer, it is an otherworldly event. When it is successful, the rest of the day is spent picking up the pieces, literally and figuratively.

A code blue took place on our floor recently and by great good fortune, the patient was revived.
In this instance, as an art therapist, my role is strictly that of the picker upper, one of many who helps put the pieces back together for a family. In this case that meant working with one of the child's siblings, a ten year old girl.

I looked into my internal Mary Poppins bag of tools. What to do? What project would allow this child to process the swirl of emotions taking place inside of her and yet preserve her dignity, her anonymity? 

I came up with the "Inside Outside" box. It's a standard art therapy directive, using collage materials; magazine pictures, Mod Podge, buttons, gems, pipecleaners, stickers, feathers, small wooden tiles (everything but the kitchen sink.)

We spread these materials on a table along with small boxes. The idea behind the project is that you put images on the outside of the box that express the part of yourself that you feel comfortable showing the world, and on the inside you place those images and objects which are private; images that represent the parts of yourself you might share with family or friends, or perhaps no one.

I watched amazed as this girl took the small tiles, carefully wrote the name of each of her family members and added a colored gem to each tile. She then glued them to two sides of the box and added some feathers on the opposite sides. It looked very ceremonial, like some kind of memorial marker.

Next, she turned her attention to the inside. I looked over as she was about to flick the contents of a brush heavily loaded with chartreuse green paint. "Whew!" I thought, "caught her before that went ALL OVER everything." Knowing she had a huge amount of emotion stored inside of her after the code, I taught her how to "point and flick." She spent the next half hour flicking every color of the acrylic palette into the box. I could not have imagined a more perfect way for her to express and capture her fear, helplessness and uncertainty.

That's the magic of art therapy. Behind a seemingly simple set of directions, lies an opportunity for a person's psyche in a pure, uninhibited yet protected way. (Provided these simple directions are supported by appropriate training in art therapy). It's one of those moments where all the study, hours of supervision, and my effort to keep faith in the process bears fruit.

Perhaps fruit isn't the right metaphor. I'm a Virgo, one of the most service oriented signs in the zodiac and I'm guided by the one of the tenets of my Jewish faith, "tikkun o'lam, " which means repairing the world. In a vulnerable moment like this one, peering into this small maelstrom of a box, I feel a piece of our world has been mended.

Pictured above is one of my first "Inside Outside" boxes made in 1999 during a class in medical art therapy.  I call it "My Father's Box."


  1. Hannah what a moving story do a wonderful job are a very special person.......x

  2. Beautiful that she had support so quickly. She must have a gem of a family.

  3. Hannah, I so enjoy reading your stories. I've long felt that art was a kind of therapy - transformative - more successful at helping process and explore the events and emotions of our lives than many other recognised forms of therapy. You DO something with it all.

    Thanks for sharing and reminding us how precious life is.

  4. I wonder if she wanted to pour paint into the box and if that could have been allowed if that would best meet her needs/feelings of the moment? (I liked that about water in sandtray work, one could flood the tray if they needed to).

    Your blessing pages are beautiful.

  5. I love the idea of this box!
    Once again such a moving and deeply visual (of course ;-) story with a beautiful message: Art Heals...sure does!!

  6. Thank you Hannah for the insight into your art therapy world. Your writing really expresses the emotion of the moment, very nice. In New Orleans the name for these boxes is "Yay Chest". I am not sure if that is the correct spelling. I have advertised to teach a class on making them, but have never had a response. I think it would be a wonderful journey to guide others on this.

  7. Lorna, thank you--and likewise I'm sure!
    Leslie, yes, her family is indeed very supportive and a joy to work with.
    Tracey: Doing "something", coming up with that "one perfect thing"(or like Mary Poppins, "practically perfect") is one of the best parts of my job--although much of the time, I feel like the project picks me!

  8. Lynn, Yes, that's possible. She was so into the flicking motions of the brush that I simply followed her lead. I'm glad you liked the pages; part of my family history.

    Donna, thank you--I like the way you described it as a deeply visual story--those words add a dimensionality I hadn't considered.

    Beth, Do you have any pictures of a Yay Chest you've made? I'd really like to see one. When you were speaking of them, I thought you were saying an exotic name like Yeycha!! (So much for my hearing!) This could become a blog challenge...

  9. Such a great idea and a touching story. I have this image in my head of a feathered box taking flight with the confused emotions closed within, to be released at the top of a mountain ... or sky scraper.

  10. Your comment
    "learning to relax into action"
    is delicious!!

    ...thanks so much Hannah for adding to the 'Luna See' :-)

  11. how wonderful -- I like the idea of the inside out box and letting whatever happens-- happen... the freedom and creativity children have and the healing of art come together perfectly.

  12. Robyn, what a wonderful image; a box in flight to the heavens, like some strange winged creature.

    Donna Iona--Believe me, given the current astrological conditions, it's the only sane way!:)

    Donna W.--I am continually surprised by the power that is harnessed when kids pick up a brush. Some part of me says "Stand back and take notice! Something amazing is happening here."

  13. thanks so much for visiting my blog about mindful meditation. i have just been to a retreat and the words i came away with are:
    'It's not what's happening, It's how we relate to it'. love the work you do with collage and damaged kids, i have been a teacher for over 40 years and know what pain they suffer when someone dies. i am also Jewish and this resonates with a lot of what i do (although I don't practise my religion), wonderful visiting your blog and i will be back.

  14. Soulbrush--I agree. I think the way we choose to see what we do and happens to us makes all the difference to the quality of our lives. What I love about art is that it literally allows us to "re-envision" our world.